In 2011, for the first time in years, National Geographic Expeditions began introducing travelers from the U.S. to Cuba. Prize-winning writer and photographer Christopher Baker, author of National Geographic Traveler: Cuba , will accompany a number of departures as our expert on Cuban travel and culture. He reflects on the expedition and describes what travelers will experience when they join him.
Q: You helped National Geographic craft the itinerary for our new expedition to Cuba, and you'll be traveling along as the expert guide on many of the trips. What excites you about this expedition?
A: I'm particularly thrilled to be working with National Geographic, and I've waited with great anticipation for the day when this would become possible—not least because I love Cuba, I come alive in Cuba, and I'm always thrilled to share what's unique about Cuba with the people I take there.
There is such pent-up energy among Americans going there. The groups that I've been with in Cuba are different in many ways from those I've traveled with elsewhere. There is a tremendous desire to understand a place that has been off limits for so long and that remains a mystery to so many.
There are very few people that go to Cuba who don't return emotionally impacted and with an incredible desire to get back there as soon as possible. There's a tremendous energy about the place, an enigmatic quality that's absolutely unique. And that's what I love to share.
Q: We are offering these trips with what's called a people-to-people license. Could you explain what that means and give a few examples?
A: The people-to-people license demands that individuals participating with the group connect on a face-to-face level with Cubans while they're there. This is fantastic, because it gives us an opportunity to learn and understand on a one-to-one basis the intricacies of life for individual Cubans.
We have to remember that we're going to a communist nation where the social, political, and economic structures differ 180 degrees from those of the U.S. American participants in these groups bring their own perspectives about cultural and political norms to a country that operates on a very different plane. For example, we know that in this communist nation, self-employment and employing people have pretty much been banned for five decades under Fidel and now Raul Castro. New openings under Raul are allowing a greater number of previously limited categories of self-employed people to make their own livelihoods. We are arriving at a particularly interesting point, because Cuba is beginning to open up.
In terms of Cuba's recent history, we're seeing some remarkable changes, most recently an announcement that people will be able to buy and sell real estate. That's been banned for five decades. We'll be able to engage with people and learn how it's been possible to live in a society where, to use a U.S. dollar equivalent, the average monthly salary of a Cuban is $18. How do you get by in a country where people have traditionally relied on rations provided by the government, and now they're cutting those out, talking about deleting them entirely?
We'll be meeting with people such as my friend Julio Muñoz in Trinidad. Julio comes from a well-noted and wealthy family that lost much of their property after the revolution. He lives in a wonderful 18th-century house that's been featured in National Geographic magazine. He currently makes his living by letting out rooms. Until last year, it was illegal for Cubans to operate two businesses, so he could never be a licensed guide, for example, while he was renting out his rooms.
One of the changes Raul introduced allows Cuban entrepreneurs to operate multiple businesses. So last year, Julio—who's a horse-lover and has always had a horse living at the back of the house in a courtyard stable—got together with other Cuban horse owners and now offers tours on horseback. And he also offers an equine health program to educate Cubans on how to care for their horses.
We'll get together with Julio. We'll go to his home. We'll learn directly from him and his wife, Rosa, what it means to be able to rent out rooms and engage with travelers on a daily basis. We'll meet interesting characters such as a Santería priest. And we'll also learn something about how Julio is engaging fellow Cubans regarding equine care.
Q: Do you get a sense of walking back in time, back into the middle of the 20th century, when you travel through Cuba?
A: Even further than that. It's one of the great qualities of traveling to Cuba—you're stepping into a time warp, but not just a time warp. Because of some of the parameters of life in Cuba, I often say that it's like stepping into C.S. Lewis's Narnia, or if you're a fan of Alice in Wonderland, then going down the rabbit hole. It's a place full of eccentricity, eroticism, and great enigma.
A Hollywood-stage-set quality is a paramount part of the time warp. It hits immediately when you arrive at the airport. You step outside the doors, and there's a whole stream of 1950s and older American cars. Of course, Cuba has modern taxis for tourists, French Peugeots and modern Japanese models. But just behind them you'll see a stream of taxis waiting for the Cubans who don't have the dollars to ride in modern cars, and what are they? They're old Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, and (primarily) Cadillacs. Havana once had more Cadillacs per capita than anywhere else in the world, including the USA, and many of them are still running. So you walk out the doors of the airport and you go "Wow!"
Many of us are familiar with the number of 1950s vehicles still chugging down the road in Cuba, but you don't have to get far to understand that you're stepping back in time in another perspective. Sure, we'll be going through Old Havana, which was founded in the 16th century and is one of the most remarkable enclaves of colonial architecture in the new world. But when we leave Havana and head out to Viñales, we're stepping into another world, a rural environment where ox-drawn plows and ox carts trundling down the road are still the norm. These villages that we pass through take us back two or three hundred years.
We'll also go to Trinidad. The city of Trinidad is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in its entirety. It was a thriving city during the great sugar boom of the 18th and 19th centuries, but in the late 19th century it was passed by for various reasons. Today, it's 'pickled in aspic.' Trinidad was featured in a 1999 story in National Geographic magazine. David Harvey photographed a wonderful piece that profiles this unique town.
It's a town where there are still cobbles in the streets, and no cars except those owned by locals allowed within its inner perimeter. It's a lived-in museum where no modern houses have been erected within the city core, which has been restored for the most part. So we'll be traveling back to the 18th century as we visit Trinidad and visiting my friend Julio and other individuals, getting to know what it's like for the Cubans living in a city that's changed very little in hundreds of years.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share about this expedition?
A: It's important for people who go to Cuba to understand that they're going to be moved emotionally, and in two ways. We're only 90 miles from the shores of Florida, but we're traveling to a place that, during five decades of communism, has been set back economically. So you're going to be moved by the relative poverty of Cuba. But you're also going to be moved in a very positive and passionate way by the spirit of community that the average Cuban displays.
Cuba has been a communist nation for more than 50 years, and while we as Americans—speaking as an English guy who's now a U.S. citizen—focus on the negatives of communism, there are positives also. The community spirit, the real sense of what community means, and the import it has for people living in a communist society is not something that's readily understood by Americans. It's a very positive quality—and that's true whatever you think about the human rights issues, whatever you think about the economic disaster that communism is. You bring away some tremendous positives when you actually meet Cubans and talk to them, and this is a great benefit of the people-to-people program.
Interview by Ford Cochran